Space exploration: Where students learn — and how — is changing at Waterloo

Shoebox classroom, your time is up.

James Skidmore

"We need to create a model that allows for a collaborative experience", James Skidmore says. "A place where students can discover they know more than they realize, have more to offer; a place where they determine to a large extent — with the guidance of professors — their educational path."

Skidmore is an associate professor in the University of Waterloo’s Department of German and Slavic Studies. He is also one of two teaching fellows in the Faculty of Arts. 

And he has a keen interest in how knowledge is shared and enjoyed. Traditional classrooms of cinder-block construction, bland painting schemes and desks bolted to the floor set his teeth on edge. They are not, he says, uplifting environments for the second-to-none education the University wants to deliver.

Creating outstanding learning spaces comes under the academic programming theme of the University’s strategic plan. Skidmore is a member of the Committee on Teaching and Learning Spaces, a group of 15 people — including students — which has set out to optimize conditions for study and scholarship at Waterloo.

"One of the things I’m hoping for,” Skidmore says, “is that in planning renovations of old classrooms and creating new classrooms, we create really flexible environments that can accommodate a variety of teaching and learning methods.”

Up-to-date smartboard and projector technology make up an important part of the solution. But Skidmore says the rooms also need to be lively, with moveable furniture so students can easily engage with each other and the person leading the class.

Change is taking place outside the classroom too.

For example, a renovation on the sixth floor of the Dana Porter Library added comfortable chairs, adjustable study carrels and lockers. When Fed Hall isn’t booked for events, students can work in its spacious gallery on the second floor. Across campus, a project underway at the J.G. Hagey Hall for the Humanities will transform a little-used courtyard into a multi-level, steel-and-glass atrium in which students can meet and study.

The Committee on Teaching and Learning Spaces will help guide a $10-million plan President Feridun Hamdullahpur announced in October 2015. The plan outlines classroom renovations and the creation of more social areas.

Skidmore also champions the growth of another kind of educational environment — online learning. “Done well, with good engagement tools, it can bring out the participation of students who tend to hold back in a classroom setting,” he says.

“Whether it’s physical or digital space, learning conditions need to keep pace with how students choose to explore their world,” Skidmore says. “Curiosity and wonder aren’t fed in the rigidness of the conventional classroom with top-down instruction.”

“We have to think beyond that,” he says. "We don’t want them just to get a degree. We want them to get an education. There’s a real difference.”

Building better spaces for students to learn, and integrating learning technologies into these spaces, is an important way for Waterloo to build excellence in academic programming. See the progress we are making.

Waterloo’s strategic plan builds on our foundational strengths to answer society’s call and emerge as one of the world’s top innovation universities.

These stories profile some of the initiatives, and the individuals, that are driving the plan forward and bringing the objectives of the plan to life.

Do you have a project or initiative that contributes to the strategic plan’s objectives? Do you have suggestions or feedback on the plan?

Share your feedback and send questions to Daniela Seskar-Hencic at

Waterloo is committed to accountability. Monitor our progress on each of the eight theme areas of the Strategic Plan